Interview of Keith Bradbury – Mojo Mouthpiece Work
by Larry Leung – January 25, 2007
Larry is a saxophone student and a professional journalist living in Hong Kong. He contacted Keith via Email and asked if he would answer some interview questions. Larry is planning to translate the interview into Chinese and publish them in a blog he has created.
We found this idea intriguing and agreed. We wanted to share the interview in English too. So here it is:
Can you tell me things about yourself and your music background? Why you picked saxophone [as] your instrument when you were a kid?
I started learning to play the sax in the 7th grade (this was in 1969, I was 12 years old). Most kids started in our school system in the 4th grade but I was not interested then. I had just “graduated” to 7th grade and switched to the Junior High School. I heard that there were a few school instruments available rent-free and I could have lessons in school. I was drawn to the sax because of its impressive shiny mechanism. The engineer in me was already coming out. I wanted to be the master of it. I liked the sound of a sax too, especially the larger ones. The band director showed me an alto sax. I asked for a bigger one and he showed me a tenor. I asked if there was anything bigger and he said “Yes, a bari sax. But you are not going to learn on a bari”. So I accepted the tenor. But in a couple of years I was playing bari too.
I have never had a paid private lesson. But I had some pretty good public school lessons along the way. A few of my friends helped me along the way by introducing me to advanced stuff they were getting in their private lessons, like altissimo studies. It is more difficult figuring out things without a good teacher. It takes longer and you sometimes fall into bad habits you have to fix later. But one advantage is that you do learn how to figure out things without relying on someone to teach you everything. This allows you to go beyond what a teacher may know.
When I was 15 I started on flute and 16 I started on clarinet. I find doubling a lot of fun and challenging. After high school I played in college bands and met a lot of great people with similar interests. Our shared experiences created lifelong friendships. I think this benefit of being in a school music program is often understated.
When and how [did] you start your interest in refacing and modifying mouthpieces? You said you had a few mouthpieces refaced by someone. Can you tell me whom you got your mouthpiece reface from? You said, "I can learn this" on your website. Could you recall why you said that? Was it because you were not happy with the reface/modification work done?
I had visited a mouthpiece refacer in the 1980’s and he helped me to upgrade some of my mouthpieces. I was better off, but I thought more could be done. His craftsmanship was a little sloppy and I thought he was more interested in making money than being helpful. But I did get my first look at refacing tools and what was involved in reworking mouthpieces. That is when I first thought I could learn this craft if I had the resources.
In the late 90’s I started surfing the web. Some of the sax forums had a wealth of information I had never been exposed to. Discussions on mouthpieces were fascinating to me. I tried a few suggestions out and changed most of the mouthpieces I was playing on. Jon Van Wie was posting some neat information and was getting some rave reviews of his refacing work. So I sent him some mouthpieces and I carefully inspected them before and after he worked on them. His work and customer service was impressive. Paul Coats posted a lot of great information and also had some sources for how to get started in refacing. I saw the need to gather all the available information on refacing in one spot on the web so I created the Yahoo MouthpieceWork group forum on March 13, 2002. My hope is to continue to share information to advance this art/science over time.
I know that you studied mechanical engineering. I do not know much about mechanical engineering [or] acoustic design. Can you tell me how did you learn to do the reface work? How many mouthpieces you experimented [with] during the learning process? What references you had to help you reface a mouthpiece to get the best acoustic effect or sound out of it?
I did not study acoustic science in college. I have read some since then, but I think very little theoretical science can be applied to making good mouthpieces. The three dimensional shapes inside a mouthpiece and sax are difficult to model with enough detail to guide design improvements. You can make more progress using sound empirical testing and observations.
The classic Band Instrument Repair Manual by Erick Brand has a couple of chapters on mouthpiece refacing. I had also read a number of articles written by Ralph Morgan that were published in the Saxophone Journal. They really did not have enough detail to get going, but they gave me a general impression of the craft. So I decide to apply some basic reverse engineering to figure out how to tell a good mouthpiece from a bad one besides just playing it.
I obtained a graduated glass gauge from Babbitt and I had a set of feeler gauges to use with it. I decided that I needed to measure the facing curve of every mouthpiece I could get my hands on. I noted how well they played and also a few other characteristics of the mouthpiece design shape. I used a set of digital calipers to measures tip openings, baffle shapes, window widths, etc. I created a notebook of data.
I think a lot of refacers get by quite well by just copying facing curves from good playing mouthpieces on to poor playing mouthpieces. But I was curious as to what the shape of good facing curves looked like. I also wondered if the good playing mouthpieces could be even better if I adjusted them in the right place. I wanted to be able to generate my own facing curve targets.
Tables of numbers are difficult to visualize. So I experimented with plotting the facing curve data until I came up with a graphical way to visualize the facing curve shape. I plotted the curves using an Excel spreadsheet and I tried several curve fits to analyze the data. I noticed that there were some bumps and flat sections in most facing curves. In addition, many were uneven from the left to right rail. Some of these were my measurement errors. I re-measured several pieces multiple times to see how repeatable I could be. My measurement technique improved.
The better playing curves were smoother and more even than the poor ones. But they still had some irregularities. I reasoned that a reed would work better on a mouthpiece without these irregularities. I started using radial curve fits through the data to determine facing curve targets. These ended up being very good for sax mouthpieces. I still use them along with some elliptical curves.
After several months of measurement and analysis practice, I decided to work on a clarinet mouthpiece. This was because I had several junkers to use as blanks. I ruined the first one trying to get the table flat. Once a table gets convex shaped, it is very difficult to fix (if your technique is bad). You keep trying and the table keeps getting lower and wider. But I only ruined this first mouthpiece. The next 10-20 were difficult, but they all turned out to be good players. Some took as long as 12 hours to get on my targets. But I knew I was on the right track.
The facing curve determines how well a reed will play and respond on a mouthpiece. The chamber and baffle design determines the basic sound of the mouthpiece. You can shop around for a design that helps you to get your sound concept. If a mouthpiece is close to what you want, you can modify the chamber and baffle to get the rest of the way. But a mouthpiece with good facing work is much harder to find. Most good players can blow past the defects, but it is more enjoyable to play on a good mouthpiece.
Mouthpiece refacing seems to be a very difficult subject to me. I read a message you posted on SOTW. To me, you know the effect of different mouthpiece designs including shape of baffle, size of the bore and window, etc. However, it seems every player has his/her own "ideal sound". Can you tell me with examples how you decide/design a modification is best suit to people's request?
Most of my clients already have a pretty good idea of what works and what does not work for them. Many fill out the questionnaire on my site, which gives me an idea of who they are musically and what their sound concept is. The mouthpieces they have played are data points of experience. From there we can determine options to go darker, brighter, or whatever else the client wants. Most are happy with the basic sound but they want the mouthpiece to respond better in a certain range…or in general. They often want the tip opened some and sometimes want it closed down. Some complain of squeaks, which I can usually fix if the mouthpiece has problems I can measure. Then there are repairs and restorations. Most are nicks and dents in the rails. I also do bite plate repairs and replacements.
Here are some problem/solution examples:
If a client feels the palm keys and altissimo are too bright and brittle sounding, lowering the baffle near the tip rail usually helps.
If a mouthpiece sounds too dark and tubby, adding some baffle in the mid-window area is a good place to start. I use temporary putty and try three or so shapes before I decide on making one out off a hard-setting epoxy putty.
If a high baffle mouthpiece sounds too bratty in the low register, I can lower the baffle near the base of the window “U” and/or enlarge (“cheek-out”) the throat area just past the window “U”.
If the altissimo does not respond well, this is often due to the facing curve being too flat at the tip rail. This flat section can also cause the sound to be a little edgy which a player may or may not like. “Edge” is a difficult thing for me to give to a client. There are several sources of edge so it can mean different things to different players. Some edge can come from a player’s embouchure and how they focus their air stream and support the reed. That is part of the reason you cannot get the sound of your favorite player by just duplicating their equipment. Since your anatomy and embouchure are probably different than theirs, you will probably get better results sounding like them using different equipment than they do. That is why I like to start with data from the player. From there we can move in the direction they want to go.
My saxophone teacher once said a good player can produce his “own voice” (I assume he means the same voice) with different set-ups. Do you agree with this? What help can a player get from refacing/modifying his/her mouthpiece?
This is true until you get to the more extreme mouthpiece designs. You will always here a player’s musical personality come through. It is how they attack notes, create phrases, and shape their sound. But someone who has a tone concept that is dark, thick, and spread is not going to easily get his or her concept out with a high baffle, small chamber mouthpiece. They can get close but it will be a strain for them and their playing will suffer. Conversely, a player with a bright, projecting, cutting tone concept is not going to get it easily with a low baffle, curved sidewall, “barrel” chamber mouthpiece. But many players’ tone concepts are more balanced. The many middle-of-the-road mouthpiece designs can be explored to obtain the tone concept with minimal playing effort. A good player can compensate for a mouthpiece design that is not ideal. But getting a mouthpiece design and a facing curve that is a good fit for their tone concept will allow them to forget about the compensating for the mouthpiece. Then they can concentrate on making music.
I heard some mouthpiece reface masters complain [that] the quality of mass produced mouthpieces is bad. What is your opinion?
Most players play on a mass-produced mouthpiece. The mouthpiece makers know that keeping cost low works well to generate sales. The most labor-intensive part of making a good mouthpiece is the hand finishing of the table and the facing curve. So this is the first to go when mass-producing a mouthpiece. But if a player tries a bunch of them, they can often get a decent playing mouthpiece at a good price. But you need to invest your time to find one, or get lucky.
For more money, you can get a mouthpiece that is produced with greater precision, such as a CNC machined mouthpiece, or one with at least some hand finishing. For even more money you can get extensive hand finishing. Usually these mouthpieces are made in small lots, or one-at-a-time, not mass-produced.
I do not complain about mass-produced mouthpieces being of poor quality if they have a low price. You are getting what you pay for. I am more concerned about high price mouthpieces not being of high quality.
The other concern I have is when a developing player wants to improve their equipment; they almost always upgrade their sax first. This is a high cost upgrade. The old sax is often in poor condition so the new well-regulated sax plays much better and looks great too. What makes more sense to me is to take that new sax money and spend a portion of it on fixing the current sax (assuming it was decent to begin with). Make it leak free and well-regulated. Spend another portion of the money on upgrading the mouthpiece. Shop for a new mouthpiece and keep your old one as a back up. You will end up farther ahead equipment-wise and will save some money.
If a saxophone student like me wants to buy a new mouthpiece from a music shop, what advice can you give him/her on selecting a good original mouthpiece?
Most students have been playing on the same mouthpiece for several years. They know this mouthpiece very well and can compensate for problems it may have by using their embouchure. Maybe it does not have problems, but it is simply now too small of a tip opening for them. They have worked up to some very hard reed strengths to keep the tip from closing off on them when they play loud on high notes. In this case it would be good to try some mouthpieces that are more open while dropping down some in reed strength. So you will need to have a selection of reed strengths with you. Plan on dropping down ½ or 1 reed strength.
Knowing the tip opening of what you are currently playing on and what you are testing would be nice. The best way would be to have them measured. But this takes special tools and some skill that are usually not available. There are mouthpiece tip opening charts that can give you an idea of the tip openings for most brands. But some mouthpieces vary so much they can be way off what they are marked. So you need to rely on your own testing.
First make sure your sax is free of leaks. Low notes will not respond well if there are leaks. Then, on alto you should try a mouthpiece similar to what you are playing but .006”-.012” larger in tip opening. On tenor, try .010”-.015” larger. Drop down ½ in reed strength. You should hear a fuller louder sound with more expression. The effects of small embouchure changes will now be exaggerated. You may find that your intonation is now wild and uncontrollable (check it with a tuner). This indicates that the tip may be too open for you. The low notes may also be difficult to play softly. If so, try a softer reed on it. If it still feels wild, try the next smaller tip opening in the same brand if it is available at the store.
If a tip opening is too small, the high notes will close off when you play loud. If this happens, try a harder reed. The key is to match each mouthpiece with a reed that allows you to play low notes softly and high notes loudly. If you cannot get this, you may have a poor reed, a bad mouthpiece, a leaky sax, or an embouchure problem. This can be difficult to sort out but it helps to know that any or all of these can exist. When it all is working properly, you have a set up that you can keep and evaluate for sound quality.
Some players, usually more experienced ones, like to take a different approach. They like to shop for sound quality first. They know what chamber and baffle designs will get them the sound they are after. They even know what reed strength and brand they like for their sound concept. They then try a bunch to find a mouthpiece that plays well. Or, they get one that sounds good and they rely on a refacer to adjust it to play like they want. You can travel different paths to get to your goal.
I have read different terms regarding a mouthpiece's playability. [Also] the responsiveness, resistance, and intonation. Can you elaborate on these things?
I think a mouthpiece plays well when it is “efficient.” That is it generates a big sound for the amount of effort the player is exerting. To do this it has to be responsive. The reed needs to speak well with hard and soft attacks. When it is responsive, most players call this low resistance or free-blowing. The piece does not fight you to create sound. A few players like to use the term resistance to describe the airflow needed to drive a mouthpiece. Low resistance would allow (and require) a lot of air to play the mouthpiece. But most players are talking about acoustic resistance when talking resistance.
To make a mouthpiece responsive, the facing curve has to be free of bumps, flat sections, and even from side to side. The facing curve has to have a gentle curving shape. Some players feel that a responsive facing is too free blowing. They may like the way the low notes speak but they want more resistance when playing the high notes. A shorter facing curve will trade some low note response for high note resistance. But I do not like to give up low note response. Instead, an elliptical facing curve that is curved more near the tip gives resistance for the high notes while preserving the facing length for the low notes.
Earlier I mentioned intonation control with respect to tip openings. The other factors affecting intonation are the mouthpiece chamber volume and the player’s embouchure. Some players, especially those who started on clarinet, play with a very tight embouchure on sax. This drives the sax pitch sharp and the player needs to pull the mouthpiece out on the cork to tune the mid range of the sax. Other players, especially layed-back jazz players, play with a loose embouchure and push the mouthpiece in more on the cork. Both of these embouchures extremes can work, but you will need to use “muscle memory” to play your high notes and/or low notes in tune. You will need to adjust your embouchure a lot across the range of the sax. If you double on several saxes or other woodwinds, you are asking a lot of your brain to compensate. I think a better strategy to start with would be to use an embouchure that requires very little change to play in tune across the range of the sax. You will still need adjustments, but now they are minor.
Paul Coats has written some great articles on the mouthpiece pitch exercise, which he attributes to Santy Runyon. This exercise attempts to teach an embouchure firmness that will minimize intonation adjustments. There is a target pitch for each member of the sax mouthpiece family. You play the mouthpiece alone and adjust your embouchure until you obtain the target pitch. Then you hold this embouchure while you tune the midrange of the sax. Now it will be easier to play in tune. I encourage all players to find these articles if they are having intonation problems.
Now if you do all this and you still have intonation problems, a mouthpiece chamber size change may help. I wont go into the theory but it is not that complicated. If your palm keys are flat and/or your low notes are sharp, a larger chamber mouthpiece than what you are using now may help. The larger chamber will flatten the entire sax and you will need to push the mouthpiece farther in on the cork to tune the mid range. This adjustment will sharpen the palm keys more than the low notes, which is what you need. If you have the opposite problem, that is sharp palm keys and/or flat low notes, a smaller chamber mouthpiece may help. Now you will need to pull out more on the cork to tune up. You can test the effect of the smaller chamber change by putting some temporary putty inside the chamber of your current mouthpiece.
Well Larry, I found your interview questions thought-provoking and typical of what a lot of developing players want to know about mouthpieces and refacing. I hope my answers and opinions will help you and others in the sax community.